More than half of money for county's coronavirus relief programs spent or allocated

More than half of money for county’s COVID-19 relief programs spent or allocated

Officials to request $120M in FEMA reimbursements by end of year

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Montgomery County has earmarked $133.6 million for 31 coronavirus response programs to help residents, businesses and nonprofits recover from the pandemic.

Of those funds, about 57% — or $75.8 million — have been spent or allocated, as of Oct. 15 .

The county has received $183 million through federal COVID-19 relief funding, but the federal aid has been slow to get to those in need.

On Oct. 13, the County Council criticized County Executive Marc Elrich for not disbursing more of the federal money in the last seven months.

In an interview on Oct. 14, Elrich said the county is distributing money as fast as it can. The deadline to spend the funds is Dec. 31.

The source of the problems in distributing the funds is that the county has been stuck waiting to find out what it will get from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Until the county knows what FEMA will do, it is holding onto most of its funding through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act.

In an update to the council on CRF spending on Tuesday, Rich Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer, said some of the county’s various coronavirus relief programs will never hit 100% on the total appropriation amounts because not all of the funding is needed. In some cases, leftover money from a fund was redirected to other needs.

“I don’t want anyone thinking that the final is going to be always 100%,” he said, adding that the county fully intends on spending all of the CRF money before the end of the year.

Of the special appropriations the council adopted more than five months ago, 80% of the funds have been spent. Most of the unspent money in those programs has been redirected, according to Madaleno.

For 14 appropriations adopted 10 to 19 weeks ago, about half of the money has been spent or encumbered.

For any recent appropriations the council has adopted, staff members are still putting together plans for how to spend the money and distribute it, Madaleno said.

So far, FEMA has approved one Montgomery County request for reimbursement, for about $20,000, covering personnel costs.

The rest of the planned FEMA requests include:
● a request for $18.2 million, to be submitted on Friday
● $13.8 million, to be submitted in early November
● $20 million, to be submitted in mid-November
● $18 million, to be submitted by the end of November
● $50 million, to be submitted by the end of December

“We have an aggressive plan to get the FEMA reimbursements in,” Madaleno said. He added that county staff members plan to provide regular updates on when the reimbursements are made and what feedback FEMA provides on the requests.

County staff members provided an update on particular funds, including the $10 million Emergency Assistance Relief Program (EARP) and more than $10 million that has been spent for food assistance programs.

The EARP distributes grants to individuals and families ineligible for federal and state aid and earning incomes less than 50% of the federal poverty level. It has four phases.

The first phase provided $1,000 to $1,450 grants to families accessing services through the county’s Care of Kids program. In that phase, the county distributed roughly $1.08 million.

In the second and third phases, which provided grants to families through nonprofits and the county’s health department, $4.3 million has been distributed.

Another $380,000 was used for administrative fees for county partners assisting with the program.

“Our expectation was that we would distribute this money much more quickly than we did,” Joan Barnes, chief of children, youth and family services for the county’s health department, told the council on Tuesday.

The health department has expanded the eligibility for the program. Instead of a requirement of earning 50% of the federal poverty level, the county increased it to 150% of the federal poverty level.

If applicants earn less than 75% of the federal poverty level, approved families will get an additional $500 and approved individuals will get an extra $250.

An additional $500 will go to approved applicants from the first phase, according to Barnes.

In addition, the health department opened eligibility to families who have income-earning members suffering from COVID-19 and who are being affected by loss of household income, resulting in a financial burden.

“We really do think we can spend most of this money before the end of this calendar year,” Barnes said. “I think the applications will come in. There are some concerns about the ability to process the applications quickly.

“There is some documentation that needs to be submitted and verified. But I do believe with the changes that we made, we are well on target to see an increase in applications.”

In two weeks, almost 400 applications have been submitted for the fourth phase.

As far as food assistance relief, more than $10 million has been spent or encumbered in grants to food providers, purchasing food, grants to local farmers, and other needs.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, executive director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said Tuesday that the county’s food programming has been one of the most successful areas in its response to the coronavirus.

He said the county intentionally has spread out its spending for food assistance, so the money would last longer.

Mark Hodge, assistant chief operating officer for the county’s health department, said Tuesday that about 95% of the money spent or encumbered so far has been in direct food purchases for more than 105 food providers across the county.

The county was receiving about 26,000 20-pound food boxes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to distribute to residents, until Sept. 19, when that distribution dropped to 4,000.

“The cost to get that back up to 26,000 was quite prohibitive,” Hodge said. “Instead, we are supplementing that with additional shelf-stable food that we’ve purchased through two vendors.”

As of Tuesday, more than 1,300 residents have been referred to the county’s food assistance programs and more than 3,000 residents have been supported.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.

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